September 29, 2020

Is It a Church?

By Chaplain Mike

Damaris sent me a link to an article that appeared in our local Indianapolis paper the other day. You can read it HERE.

The title on the web-edition was, “Brownsburg Church Promotes God as an Expert on Sex.” I think the print edition ran a title something like, “Sex, Drugs, and Rock-n-Roll,” and both used a subtitle that talked about how “alternative” churches are reaching out to the unchurched in their communities with “innovative” approaches.

Let’s skip the obvious temptation to talk about sex here, and get to the deeper issues this article raises.

The piece quotes Philip Goff, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, who says,

A growing number of mostly startup churches are trying increasingly creative approaches to appeal to people who have either strayed from church or had no interest in organized religion, Goff said.

“One of the things many of these new churches are trying to do is imitate culture to bring in people, instead of sitting back and critiquing it,” he said. “This is a trend that is going to be with us for a long time, because preachers are realizing they may have to turn to nontraditional means to attract younger members.”

The article mentions other “non-traditional” ways churches are reaching out, “such as tattoo parlors, music venues or even bars. They may host heavy-metal concerts, skateboard competitions, motorcycle shows or even body-piercing events to spread their message.” One church promotes its ministry with business cards that use the slogan, “Hate Religion?” written in the style of a blood smear. “Other churches have begun to draw younger crowds with rock music and a come-as-you-are message,” such as the Current Church in my own town of Franklin, which shares building space with a Christian concert venue called “The Gear.” The article says this style has allowed them to attract “a mostly 25-and-younger crowd” that would normally not be interested in church.

Two things I would like to say in response to this author’s observations.

  • One, this is not news. We in the Christian culture have been watching this happen for years. Internet Monk itself has been looking at these developments and critiquing them for over a decade now.
  • Two, what I wonder is: can we call these communities “Churches” in the truest Biblical, historic, and traditional sense of the term?

Without denigrating what these folks are trying to do, I sincerely wonder: IS THIS CHURCH?

I am going to argue, “No.”

My take on what has happened over the course of the last forty years is as follows. In evangelicalism in particular, we have raised a whole generation of Christians who were discipled not so much by traditional local churches as by parachurch ministries and churches that have become dominated by the parachurch ethos. That ethos is not “Church” but “Mission.” And so what we see today is the fruit of that. We have many communities of faith that would be better described as “missions” rather than “churches.”

Campus Crusade for Christ, Navigators, InterVarsity, Youth for Christ, and a thousand other parachurch ministries have been the true engines of growth in evangelicalism over the course of my Christian life. Their emphasis on “evangelism and discipleship” influenced those who developed the church growth movement, the Willow Creek movement, the church-planting “community church” type movements, and the more contemporary examples we see today, noted in the newspaper article. Traditional Protestantism defined the church as a community where the Word of God was truly preached and the sacraments truly administered. Today, “church” is defined by many as a community that practices evangelism and discipleship.

I don’t totally disagree, and the emphasis on mission in today’s congregations is likely a reaction to a lack of that emphasis in more traditional congregations.

However, this leads to some problems. What, for example, would Paul say about a “church” that consists wholly of those age 25 and under? Or any “church” that exists primarily to reach a particular demographic? Or a “church” that, for the purpose of outreach, shapes its preaching and “worship” (i.e. music) after a particular culture rather than shaping it around the Gospel? (That is not the same as saying our worship and religious styles will reflect our cultural context.)

I think, frankly, that the Apostle would have problems with this approach. Certainly, in a broad sense, Paul saw himself as an “apostle to the Gentiles,” while others were “apostles to the Jews.” And he did say, in 1Corinthians 9, that he was willing to adapt his approach to reach as many as possible. That was his mission in the world.

However, that was not what he said “church” is about. When Paul gathered people from the various backgrounds he had reached into the church , he  brought them together, and insisted that the ethos of the church was learning to accommodate to one another, accept one another, and become a cross-cultural community in Christ.  Almost every epistle he wrote is designed in part to reinforce this ecclesiological perspective.

For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:27-28)

[you] have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all. (Col 3:10-11)

Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Rom 14:5-7)

But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. AND HE CAME AND PREACHED PEACE TO YOU WHO WERE FAR AWAY, AND PEACE TO THOSE WHO WERE NEAR; for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Eph 3:13-22)

This is an entirely different vision of the church than we see in many congregations, whether traditional or “cutting-edge.” There is a breadth to the church as well as a height, a horizontal element as well as the vertical dimension. It is not just about bringing people into relationship with God through Jesus and providing a place where they may feel “comfortable” because we have accommodated to their cultural expectations. It is about bringing people into a community that requires that we learn how to relate to all different kinds of people and teaches us to love one another.

It is entirely reasonable to assume that the reason people think we need so many “innovative” mission-oriented “churches” today is because the traditional churches failed to be “the church” in this regard. We isolated ourselves from the world rather than go out in mission with Paul’s gracious, accommodating spirit.

  • We did not welcome the outsider.
  • We did not show concern for the ones who are unlike us.
  • We did not love our neighbors when we disapproved of their clothing, the music they liked, or the culture, ethnicity, or socio-economic group they represented.
  • We ignored and even demonized our straying youth.
  • We lost our sense of mission, at least when it came to our near neighbors.
  • We did not go out into the world, as Paul did, willing to adapt our lifestyles and approaches to reach people from various cultures, befriending sinners and sharing God’s love with them in ways they could grasp.
  • We separated from them instead. We tried to create islands of godliness in a sea of sinful culture. And then we tried to attract outsiders to come in to behold something “different.”

Yes, in many ways the traditional churches failed to be the church, participating in God’s mission in the world. But the ultimate answer is not to create “missions” to particular groups of those who have been left out and then call these missions “churches.” We must distinguish between “church” and “mission.” What happens when we “scatter” into the world differs from what we do when we “gather” together as God’s family.

The “mission” that calls itself a “church” may be a necessary transitional step because of where we’ve been, but ultimately God’s people need to grow up and become adults and listen to what the New Testament says.

  • We are called to create genuine churches of “Jew and Gentile, slave and free, etc.” united in Christ alone.
  • A church is not only a place where the Word is truly proclaimed and the sacraments faithfully served. It is also a place, according to the consistent and pervasive teaching of the NT, that intentionally strives for inclusion and diversity as a testimony to God’s love for the whole world.
  • A true church is a place where everyone is welcome, and where one of the chief matters of spiritual formation is learning to love those who are different from me.

God is creating a community–a cross-cultural community—that is, a people that consists of folks who may be very different from one another, but who share a “common unity” in Jesus Christ. That is the NT vision of church. Our unity does not consist in the fact that we all have tattoos or like grunge music or meet in a pub. Nor does it consist in the fact that we are mostly conservative middle-class suburbanites. Nor does it consist in our whiteness or blackness or the specific ethnic culture in which we live. Nor is it about organs, hymns, robes, and pews.

Our only true oneness is in Christ. We accommodate to “where people are” to reach them in the world for Christ, making them disciples. But then, when we baptize them and teach them to observe all that Christ commanded us, we call them into the practice of cross-cultural love within the new family God is creating. What the world needs to see is faith communities made up of people vastly different from one another who have laid hold of that.

That’s church.


  1. thanks for lending some definition to the confusion!

  2. OK, but once you have gathered cross-culturally, how do you express this cross-culturalism? How do you keep your gatherings from simply becoming an Ed Sullivan variety show, where each subculture gets their 5 minutes of expression?
    Or do you deemphasize the group gathering (church service) in favor of more neutral environments that do not necessitate a particular cultural expression (singing music, clothing style), such as a potluck dinner?

    Mike, you asked what would Paul say “about a “church” that, for the purpose of outreach, shapes its preaching and “worship” (i.e. music) after a particular culture rather than shaping it around the Gospel? (That is not the same as saying our worship and religious styles will reflect our cultural context.). ”
    Please elaborate on the functional difference between the two. How can it both reflect a cultural context and still be inclusive? Is the context the lowest common denominator, ie. that we agree it will be an English-speaking service, but no music? No preaching for longer that the shortest attention span of the youngest generation?

    • Steve, each congregation must work this out for themselves. I hope it was clear that I was making my point at the level of actual relationships and mutual love rather than at the level of style and particular ways of doing things.

      Example. One thing I have seen over the span of my Christian life and pastoral career is that older generations have largely been much more forbearing and loving and accepting of changes in the church than the younger generations have. Not always true, of course, but I have observed this. They have watched their symbols, music, architecture, programs–you name it, their whole way of “doing church”–change and be done away with, often with breathtaking speed and without consideration of the hurt feelings that such wholesale change involves. The younger generations (including me for many of those years) were demanding, insensitive to how meaningful many practices were to our elders, disrespectful of history and tradition, and selfish about what we wanted.

      A couple of years ago, I remember sitting in a service at Willow Creek and watching one of the greatest examples of loving forbearance I had ever seen. A couple of rows in front of me, an older gentleman that I believe was a regular attender, spent the whole singing time with his fingers in his ears because of the loudness of the music. Think about that. Here’s a man willing to come to church every week (or so I assume) and worship God with his fingers stuck in his ears! As C.S. Lewis once said, one of the greatest acts of humility and grace is to worship God while singing a hymn you can’t stand.

      That is a picture of church to me. Church congregations and leaders will decide on which styles best reflect their own worship to God. But it will be inevitable that some, maybe many, won’t like those styles. My point is that the maturity Paul calls us to will say, so what? I love my brothers and sisters and will worship with them anyway.

      • Your comment below:
        “…I’m talking about ministries that intentionally limit their outreach to particular demographics…”
        actually clarifies it pretty neatly.

      • You just said everything I was thinking so much better than I could have. The way that older people are treated in many churches scrambling to adopt contemporary services in order to grow their congregations is nothing short of insensitive and disgraceful. Not only older people, but younger people as well who want a more tradtional, reflective, reverent atmosphere in which to worship God are expected to just accept these changes and are often accused of loving tradition more than God if they express any displeasure or objection. And yet as you said, they often do accept it with much grace and forbearance. I saw elderly people at my former church have to wake up earlier and earlier as the traditional service was pushed back to accomodate the “culuturally relevent” services. So, old people were getting up and out at 8:30am, even when it was snowing to come and worship while the younger, stronger members slept in and came later. And yet, they never complained. I don’t think that this was intentionally done to hurt anyone, but it just didn’t sit right with me.

        I have nothing against contemporary worship, but I think that when a church becomes gimmicky, relying on canned sermon programs, flashy outreaches and loud music to attract people, you can get a congregation that is a mile wide and an inch deep, because there is no discipleship of believers. I was saved in a parachurch as a teen, but once I was I joined a small evangelical congregation. The discipleship I received there is what helped me grow in Christ.

        I switche churches about a year ago. My family had been ar our former about 5 years and we knew only a handful of members, despite the fact that the church had over 700 people attending weekly. Also despite these numbers, they routinely had problems getting key ministry positions filled within the church. It never felt right to us, and we left for a church of only 90 members down the road. My new church does not have a rock show. We don’t have all the bells and whistles. But there are some key differences. The first was how warmly we were welcomed when we went there. When we became members, a woman came up to me, hugged me and said “I was the first person to greet you!” I think that love is what makes us inclusive. People care for each other and reach out to care for those in the community. We are only 90 people, but we run after school and two nursing home ministries. We support 15 missionaries. We have no problem finding people to volunteer and we take care of everything, right down to mowing the lawn. I believe it is because people feel a sense of commitment and family, and when you have that, you don’t have to beg people to get involved.

        Anyone who wants to be a part our service can. Some music performed is contemprorary, some traditional. We have pot luck dinners and hay rides. People enjoy each other and help each other grow in Christ. We pray for each other and take the time to get to know the person we are praying for. I do feel like these people are my brothers and sisters, and I think that is what makes a church no matter what the size or the style. Love is the most inclusive thing that there is. It trumps all the gimmicky church building that there is. I am no pastor, but I know that Jesus himself said it:

        Matthew 22:36-40

        36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

        37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[a] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

        I enoy following your blog.

    • Steve — The acceptance of a liturgy helps in this regard. The shape and content of a service is then a given. It isn’t dictated by one particular group or culture, but every group submits to the same form. Beyond that there will be different languages, music, decorations, etc. I attend a liturgical church, and it is the most integrated institution of any kind in an hour’s radius.

      • I should also mention that the church’s diversity is a result of the parish system as well as the liturgy.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        My home parish of St Boniface in Anaheim is a double-ethnic parish, with Masses in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Being Anglo, I attend English-language Mass and judging from skin and clothing, we have a pretty wide range of ethnics and economic status there. Often a computer geek like me will end up in a pew next to a plumber.

  3. I agree completely. I spent several years in that world, and this was one of the problems that led to my disillusionment. I went back to define essentials that I considered for a church

    For the people who make up a church
    – Variety of ages and variety of family status (widows, single, divorced, young, old)
    – Variety of races (this is extremely difficult, and I consider it an ideal)
    – Variety of places in their spiritual walk (from new Christians to seasoned biblical scholars)
    – Variety of economic/social status

    For services themselves, I considered these items critical.
    – Regularly practice communion and baptism (infant or older was not that important to me)
    – All three members of the Trinity part of the service
    – Connection with historic creeds (at a minimum Apostles and Nicene)

    I was able to find the people part (except for races), but to get the rest I had to leave the baptist and non-denominational world.

    • I think you are exactly right. I listen to a related segment on Talk of the Nation (NPR) today. They were looking, sociologically, at non-political groups with strong political views. The two examples given were the teachers’ groups being dominated by political-liberal views and Evangelicals being dominated by political-conservative views. The study showed that once the view of the group reaches about 80%, it is virtually impossible to be part of that group unless you hold the exact same views. The reason is, the group will harass you, if you don’t share those views, to the point that you will either leave (quit being a teacher, leave the church) or change your views. One example was a teacher who voted for George Bush. He felt so uncomfortable at every teacher’s meeting because they had a lot of George Bush jokes (I heard a lot of Obam jokes at my old Evangelical church). His boss was always sending him news stories about mistake George Bush was making.

      So, God had the wisdom to know that the Church must be diversified. The word “koinonia” has the same root as for money “Coin” as it was common to all people. A cross section. That way, we will not let our political, social, or sub-cultural views get mixed up in the simple truth of the Gospel.

      My old church has a motor cycle church that meets there. I’ve attended one service. It is like a room full of cookie-cutter people, same tattoos, same leather clothes, same words etc.

      I’ve also noticed that these “culturally sensitive” church movements tend to favor the simpletons of society. Those who not only didn’t partake of higher education, but, now that they dominate the church) speak against education as if it was from Satan. So, I think it is far more healthy to have middle school drop out garbage collectors side by side with Ph D astrophysicists. They each learn to respect the other and not develop the view that all must be stupid or all must be well educated to be good Christians.

      • I so agree, J. Michael. A few years ago I worked at a Christian institution of higher ed and so often thought what a surprise it would be to these men preparing for ministry to discover that there may actually be Democrats in their churches. I was that teacher that voted for Bush only on the other end of the spectrum. I heard anti-government rants all day long, with the assumption that, of course, I agreed that Obama was a Muslim, uppity women were ruining society by not staying home with their children, and on and on. Our current church is becoming the same way and it bothers me greatly. I think the church is following the polarization of our society, made worse, in my opinion, by the huge array of choices in the digital age. There is so much information out there, and it can be so overwhelming that people gravitate to that which agrees with them. (Ever had a conversation with a retiree who watches only Fox News and listens to talk radio all day? You will find that a simple statement like, “Wow! That was some snowstorm last week!” will launch them into a diatribe against the stupidity of anyone who believes that there really is global warming. And it happens on the other side of the coin as well.) But how can we “not let our political, social, or sub-cultural views get mixed up in the simple truth of the Gospel” I wish I knew, because for far too many, political views ARE the Gospel. I honestly think it’s too late…

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          But how can we “not let our political, social, or sub-cultural views get mixed up in the simple truth of the Gospel” I wish I knew, because for far too many, political views ARE the Gospel.

          And the Tea Party is the Church, and Ayn Rand is the Fourth Person of the Trinity, and all Heretics and Apostates Must Be Burned.

          Ees Party Line, Comrades.
          Don’t Ask Political Questions.

          You know, it used to be the Left of various types (and their most extreme fringe, the Communists) who wrote the book on making Politics into State Religion…

          • So when are “we” going to hear a talk by our “spiritual leader” Speaker Boehner? I’m sure the Tea Party advocates can’t wait to hear him address the spiritual flock 😀

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        So 80% is some sort of critical mass above which there is Total Conformity?

  4. I would offer an alternative possibility: by adding these additional missions and calling them church, the Church IS being diverse and open, even if each individual church isn’t. Is it realistic to expect every church to be everything for all people? Is it unreasonable to expect certain people to gravitate toward each other, but ultimately work together with other Christian churches for a common goal, even if they may not be physically/geographically together?

    Perhaps instead of expecting these new churches meeting young adults where they’re at and old churches meeting the boomer generation and older where they’re at to integrate, let them have their own church buildings… and collaborate instead of integrate. Then you have that diversity, that respect for generational differences that don’t necessarily translate across generational lines, and it’s still the one Church, even if it isn’t one church.

    • Was it unreasonable for Paul to expect Jews and Gentiles to accept and love one another and work together in one congregation?

      • Yes. It’s probably one of the reasons that the Jewish presence in Christianity didn’t much survive the first century.

        • I think the Romans might have had a little more to do with it than Paul.

          • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

            Yep. The Bar-Kokhba revolt and resulting Roman persecution is what introduced gentiles into the position of Bishop of Jerusalem. From James the Brother of the Lord until AD 135, every Bishop of Jerusalem was Jewish. That’s a full 16 Jewish Bishops. What happened after that persecution scattered many of the Jewish Christians is that they formed some minority communities within Eastern Christianity. To this day, there are Christian communities in the Middle East that use Aramaic as their primary liturgical language. Most of their members are descendants of Jewish and Arab Christians. There are several Greek Rites that are of Jewish Christian origin whose membership is made of of the descendants of Hellenized Jews and Gentile Greeks. In India, the Nasrani are descendants of Jewish Christian missionaries.

            The reason many of these communities aren’t recognized as being Jewish Christian is that they were developing at the same time as post-Temple Rabbinic Judaism was developing. Those guys pretty much became the only game in town as far as Judaism is concerned. Between the Rabbinic tradition being hostile to Jesus and the widespread intermarriage between early Jewish Christians and their Gentile Christian neighbors, those Christian communities with Jewish roots ceased to “look Jewish” to other Jews.

            I don’t think the problem is that the Jewish presence disappeared (even if it was and is a minority) as much as the definition of what it meant to be Jewish changed.

      • I think that in order to have the kind of community that you’re looking for, we’d have to stop planting churches and start tearing churches down. By “church,” I do mean church buildings. The trouble is that there are too many, and with all the churches available, people can shop around until they find the one that speaks to them – if I remember correctly, and I came to IM kind of late, you did some church shopping yourself until you found the one that meshed with Christianity the best for you. I may be wrong.

        With many churches, you have many specialties. It is only by creating scarcity of churches that people will go to the church that they can get rather than the one that they want, and that may lead to increased diversification within one church environment (which can be benefitted by limiting all tithing to one church rather than 35 on five city blocks). However, that’s also a recipe for disaster. We’d have denominations created all over again as people would be unable to agree on everything from music style (or music at all) to baptism to free will vs. predestination to iconography to carpet color.

        When the Church is so big, asking the church to be everything for everybody might be overreaching. But asking the various focused churches to collaborate with each other may foster a greater sense of community without alienating others.

  5. I agree with much of what you say. I have been trying to establish a new monastic intentional community in Southeast Missouri, and everyone I talk to for support can’t get past the whole “church or not a church” question. I once had an hour-long conversation with a pastor about what a new monastic intentional community looks like, and he STILL (to this day) persists in referring to it as a “church plant.”

    There is a difference.

    However, I would also argue that what we would traditionally consider a church–i.e., a centralized sanctuary where the masses go to worship–is not a biblical church, either. Nowhere in the Bible will you find the standard “institutionalized model” that we have today. Church is something that–like community–is cultivated and nurtured, and is fluid enough to move from location to location, house to house, family to family.

  6. True. The again, there are those of us who have found that attractional, institutional “churches” with huge budgets to pay for large properties and staffs, and replete with people who wish to cloister themselves from culture, who are exclusive rather than inclusive, who have no wish to “go out”, but prefer to stay “in” and judge culture and those they disagree with politically do not look much like church or Jesus either. They (the people we come in contact with) will know we are Christians by our love, not by our bumper stickers and all of this other stuff. Religion has become a huge business, has it not?

    • I think I agreed with you in my post, didn’t I, Sam?

      • Yes, I believe you did. I wrote this in haste just before leaving for an appointment. I have observed that not only do some of the groups who are trying to appeal to a certain demographic not look much like church, but also that some of the more traditional groups also do not look much like church.

        The last institutional church of which we were a part did not want the poor, lower classes, minorities, gay or basically anyone who was not at least WASP upper middle class who believed just like they did on many issues – religious, quasi-religious and political. Their primary concern was that the core group remain intact and that the money come in to pay for the property and salaries. They called it a church. I called it a religious club. They could not comprehend why the entire residential neighborhood in which the property was located strongly disliked them.

        Constantine did Christianity no favors when he made it the state-sponsored religion, complete with temples and a paid priesthood.

        • Constantine *didn’t* make it the state-sponsored religion. He merely signed an edict which ended the governmental persecutions. Christianity wasn’t declared the state religion until 380 A.D. by Theodosius I.

          Also, Constantine did support the Church monetarily, this is true. However, to state that he supplied the Church with “temples and a paid priesthood” makes it sound like these things were not already in existence. Part of the Edict of Milan stated that the properties and building of Christians were to be returned to them.

        • I see that another poster already corrected you in regards to Constantine. He provided financial assitance to the church because he was a Christian. The purpose of the Edict of Milan was to repeal the persecution of Christians begun in 311 and to restore property previously owned by the church to the church.

  7. That’s one of the good things about the parish model. If the draw of a church is some stylistic element–type of music, order of worship service, preaching quality, warehouse or more traditional aesthetic, the demographics of people there, etc.–it necessarily excludes those who are different. Of course, denominations do some of that as well–you won’t go to church with Arminians at a Presbyterian church, for example. But, with a parish mentality, the reason you’re at the church isn’t something that you like or that it does for you. It’s just your church, and the people who go there are just the Christians in your community. Very Wendell Berry.

    • But even in churches with parish models like the Catholic Church and the Mormons (they call it a ward, but it’s the same thing), you see ward hopping. If a parish has a good children’s program suddenly that parish will wind up with huge numbers of young families attending it. While there are supposed to be rules the religious mothership tends to take the view of, well, at least they’re at a church of the brand.

  8. One problem I see in trying to sort through the problem Chaplain Mike writes about is this – a seeming inability of many protestant, evangelical Christians to imagine church outside the context of consumerism. That is reflected in a few of the comments already. Most denominations are consumeristic at their core, so for most of us in America especially, we don’t have a framework for understanding church any other way. What I think needs to be realized as a starting point is that we don’t create or define the Church – the Church is what it is. The Church was started by Christ through His apostles in 33 A.D. and has continued throughout history. The question of “what is the Church” is not so much one of which denomination has “correct doctrine”, or which congregation is effectively carrying out any given understanding of the “mission” of the church, or even which one most closely aligns to the biblical description of the church. Rather, the question should be historical – “where is the Church that was founded 2000 years ago and has prevailed against the gates of Hades, as Jesus promised, since that time”? Answering that question takes away our responsibility to define or create the church based on our own culturally and theologically biased understandings. I don’t want this post to be interpreted as in any way judgemental of evangelical/protestant Christians. I come from a Southern Baptist background and am wrestling with these questions myself.

  9. I am 30 years old. I naturally reach people about 10 years to either side of me. In a previous ministry, I was involved in a very traditional church. But because of my style and age (I took the ministry at 24) I didn’t attract nor was I able to get some groups, generations, etc on board. So because we didn’t have any one in our church that was 65+, does this mean we weren’t a church? Because we were in a rural farm town in Illinois and our entire county had a demographic made up of 99.9% Caucasian and .1% African American, this meant we had 0 black people in our church. Based on your definition, were we failing to be the church?

    My personal view is that the church is not a place. Therefore, church (a group of followers of Christ, believing in One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism) can come in many forms. While traditional is not “my style,” I can’t say they are not a church because I don’t agree with how they do it. I can say the traditional church is in some ways unhealthy (solely based on my experiences, not all traditional churches are unhealthy), but I can’t claim that it isn’t church.

    • A church doesn’t need to be multi-ethnic, etc. to be “cross-cultural.” But it does need to be a place where people from all the various “cultures” in a given community would find a welcome, and in which everyone would be taught to accept, accommodate, and serve one another in Christ despite natural differences.

    • Stan…

      Think of how many cities in the United States are segregated today? Blacks in the inner city, along with Pakistanis, hispanics, etc.. and then consider the mega churches in the suburbs. White, upper middle class, George W Bush voting, Tea Party Republicans who prosper in suburbs around cities. Is that representative of churches and how it should be? I lived, and worked in one of the most racially segregated cities in the United States. And evangelcals were the most segregated and led the way in segregation. The churches fled the cities with the rest of their white congregations to be nice and comfy country clubs 15 to 20 miles away from the problems of the inner city.

      Consider, this is coming from a person who doesn’t believe God exists…but it’s segregationist mentalities and racially divided churches that to me are one of the contributing factors that make American Christianity to be a mockery.

  10. CM, I think this was an excellent essay. I like how you have tried to steer away from the whole “worship wars” issue and speak more to the idea of uniting people rather than creating a bunch of independent narrowly-focused missions. That seems to me what the early church was about—-uniting previously irreconcilable people like Jews and Gentiles, tax collectors and zealots, etc. What the church gradually did was create a new culture that united Christians. Although there were unique expressions in different locations and a slow evolution of that common culture, Christianity fundamentally united people to a new Christian culture rather than just plopping people together and saying, “OK, your culture gets to lead worship this week, yours the next week, etc.” It’s not that different people from different cultures couldn’t stop being part of those cultures, but they were united by something different from ANY of those cultures—a distinct Christian culture expressed in common worship practices, common doctrine, common lifestyle, common Scriptures,even a common language for much of church history.

    IMHO, even though missions may use elements of a distinct culture to make an initial appeal to people, it should be part of the ultimate goal to “lift people out of their surrounding culture” into a higher Christian society.
    Is modern day American culture really something we want to bring the church down to? I think the goal should be a move up, regardless of where one starts from.

  11. CM, I think the connection to parachurch ministries is right on the money. I was involved in InterVarsity for four years in college and a year in grad school. When I became part of a church plant in 1982, I soon realized I really didn’t understand much about the local church: necessity of commitment, the ministry gifts of Eph 4, church discipline, submission to the pastor/ elders, etc. I was mission-minded and local church illiterate.

    Fortunately, the pastor was also gifted as an evangelist, so outreach was central to church life, not just an afterthought or an occasional foray into the community. And because we were a new church in an area with few good churches, there were all sorts of people of all backgrounds, ages, and a variety of previous church experiences. This church maintained the balance between spiritual formation and outreach in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else. Most I’ve since been involved in are like traditional model you described.

    In a more perfect world, I’d like to see niche “communities” folded into modest-sized gatherings that meet at various locations in a city or area. These gatherings could share persons gifted in particular ministries (e.g., evangelist, teacher) but have their own elders and pastors as needed. Like you I don’t like the idea of people gathering only with those like themselves almost exclusively. In my mind this is similar to the reality of New Testament churches that met house to house (or in other small gatherings) but shared the ministry of Paul, Apollos, etc.

  12. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    A growing number of mostly startup churches are trying increasingly creative approaches to appeal to people…

    We talking “Creative” or just BIZARRE?

  13. We might also consider:
    “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matt. 18:20 ESV

    My overarching concern is that nothing about a church’s message or methods get in the way of growing in true faith.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      That’s an absolutely great verse and a great promise from our Lord. BUT, I don’t think that verse was about the marks of a church or the Church. I think it’s more than that. A random gathering of Christians is not the same as a community of the faithful gathering to hear the Word, receive the sacraments, and worship the Lord.

  14. Hi Mike, not sure if you are asking the right question.

    How about:

    “Are they church?”

    Is church an organization that people belong to? Or does the church sometimes organize?

    I think the church is people. It is a family. It is the body of Christ. Yes, the church sometimes gathers, and gathering of the church are great, but the church is not defined by the gathering. We are the church 24/7, no matter where we gather.

    • Jon, I don’t think I’m assuming any particular institutional form here. The church is a community of people and that word includes both organic and organizational aspects. But my point is exactly what you are saying. It is how we relate to one another that I’m concerned about. Mission-oriented communities that base their identity on reaching a particular demographic have made a relational decision, not just an organizational choice.

      • Bitterly Clinging says

        I think you’re assuming too much about mission-oriented communities. The style of worship doesn’t necessarily suggest a given demographic (as you illustrate in your reply to the second comment). If the mission is to reach the un-churched, how is that a relational decision?

        • The mission referred to in the post is connected to a music venue that focuses on punk/grunge/alternative styles of music. It is specifically targeted to a demographic, and the leadership openly admits that. That may not be true of all such missions, but it is of the one I’ve mentioned.

          I have also had way too many conversations with other church planters, pastors, and people from older generations who have left churches to think that appealing to specific demographics is not a pervasive practice. It has been common “church growth” wisdom for several decades now.

  15. I couldn’t help but think of a similar title to an article in my denomination’s magazine (United Church of Canada- our largest and probably fastest shrinking Protestant denomination and very liberal). It talks about a “creative” approach to reaching people. Many it seems don’t think God belongs in the church.. They consider themselves “post-theistic” – and this includes some of its ordained ministers. I’m not sure how you can be considered a minister in a church if you don’t believe in God, but that is the way it is. But it seems that on the liberal side of things, they are trying to reach people for, I don’t know who really, by removing God from the “church.”

    For those who may be interested, here is the link to that story of a similar name:

    I’m sure it will be an interesting fight up here to see if God belongs in the church or not. As ridiculous as that sounds, it is what I will be watching over the next couple of years.

    • I read the article.
      Just, wow.

      • Back to the “God Is Dead” theology of the 1950s-60s? What bland dreck.

        • But they think they are being progressive and forward thinking. It’s sad, but it is one thing for the average person on the street or even in the pew to think that, but when that is what the church starts teaching – that bothers me. I think they should have the intellectual honesty to leave if they can’t believe in something as basic to faith as a belief in God.

  16. These so called churches are no more a church than the Montana Freemen are a legitement government.can you imagine Jesus or Paul or one of the other apostles making a complete ass out of themselves trying to get people to follow them through ridiculous techiques such as barf contests and sports weekends and other such nonsense.They didnt beg anyone to follow them, they gave them the gospel and moved on.Can you picture the bending over backwards and kissing peoples butts with tattoo churches and entertainment just to get people to show up ‘ I cant. I am no longer an evangelical since I’ ve joined the Orthodox Church but this is the kind of stuff that turned me off to protestantism.If people cant come to church without all the assinine gimmicks then they shouldnt be there in the first place.

    • No, but I also can’t imagine Jesus standing behind a pulpit in front of a stained glass window with a fully robed choir and a power point presentation either. The church should in my opinion be where the people are and not the other way around.

      It’s easy for moderately like-minded people to come to consensus on what is clearly outside the bounds of what we accept as church, but this could become a dangerous and slippery slope and very soon we are arguing the finer points of doctrine, practice, and tradition.

  17. As someone who once was involved in CCC I would suggest that they are very suspicious of many churches. They also have this competition mindset and are ultimately competing against other parachurch minsitreis and churches as well. The churches turn out to be a loser time and time again. Many people bring that competition mentality with them to chruches and I think it cripples them. It’s why churches across the street from each other will battle eahc other in an effort to get members.

    But put quite simply a lot of people don’t belong in chruches today. Do you think I, as an agnostic, could be so open to doubting God, having nothing but difficult questions, etc if I were in a church? Hell no. Many wont allow people unless they have a similar mindset or belief system. Becuase I don’t believe in the pre-trib rapture or other assine beleifs kind of sealed some of my doubts and theological problems.

    One of my close freinds is gay. In interacting and talking with him I often wonder….how many people looking for love finally find it in the gay bars, Craigslist, etc.. especially when they have been rejected and turned away from church?

    You can do this with a number of issues…education, creationism, spiritual gifts, etc..

    Okay I’ll end my rant. Back to America’s Best Christian Ms. Betty Bowers 😀

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Many people bring that competition mentality with them to chruches and I think it cripples them. It’s why churches across the street from each other will battle eahc other in an effort to get members.

      Including “sheep-rustling” each others’ members.

      I often wonder….how many people looking for love finally find it in the gay bars, Craigslist, etc..

      Or Furry Fandom? After 20 years in-country, I’ve found a similar dynamic in-play; a LOT of Furries went into imaginary talking-animal critters and the Fandom just to have some place to BELONG. (Of course, this has its own problems when you get destructive crazies also coming in to BELONG or predator types taking advantage of the prey-rich environment…) Omega Males, High School Hell Punching Bags, social rejects of every kind who come into the Fandom to get Accepted.

  18. On the side , I dont know how these churches would worship God without electricity. No soundboard , no mikes, no headsets , no jumbotron screen, man they would just have to pray and sing hymns an other boring stuff like that .

    • Yeah, and people amight actually have to stand next to each other to share hymnals and gasp – get to know one and other.

  19. Eagle , no offense but if you are an agnostic the you dont belong in a Church. Church is for believers in Jesus and what He did.

    • Geoff…

      When I was in the church, just like when I did a mission trip I was a Christian. I couldn’t be abolsutely as certain as so many others. But I believed… But what can I say? Those Pharises are a wonderful addition to any church!! You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you I spent time in Mormonism in college, and since exiting evangelical Christianity I realzied that both the LDS cult and many evangelicals have a lot in common. (ie..How they handle doubt, an “us” vs. “them” mentality, pulling back from people as well if they are struggling in their faith, twisiting scripture, etc.. )

      K…off to bed…!! 😯

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        …since exiting evangelical Christianity I realzied that both the LDS cult and many evangelicals have a lot in common.

        Not surprising, since the Mormons and Evangelicals came out of the same geographic area and base culture. I’d expect them to resemble each other in externals and general attitudes.

    • Yes, by all means, let’s keep people who aren’t sure what to think about God out of our churches.

    • So wait a minute…churches are social clubs for those who already believe? Then why do they have preachers who preach the good news? What’s the point of telling a message that all those in attendance accept? Seems to be a waste of time, but it does explain why Christianity is not growing in America. It apparently can only grow by keeping its own children in the belief because it’s incapable of convincing anyone who doesn’t already believe?

      • Yep, all too many churches are, in fact, little more than social clubs for those who already believe. Non-believers are permitted, of course, so they can respond to the altar call and let us train them up to be good faithful Republican culture warriors. 😉

        But as Eagle’s story so clearly illustrates, doubters are anethema.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        So wait a minute…churches are social clubs for those who already believe? Then why do they have preachers who preach the good news? What’s the point of telling a message that all those in attendance accept?

        “Because It Warms My Heart To Hear Salvation Messages.” — mention of the phenomenon in the book Well Intentioned Dragons. Though “scratches my itchy ears” is probably more Biblical imagery.

        The second rural church pastored by my writing partner (the burned-out preacher) is a greying and dying church with this exact attitude. They keep bringing in Guest Revival Preachers to Preach Salvation Messages to the choir and nobody else. (Nobody in this church has ANY friends or social contacts other than church. Period.)

        There’s also a KJV1611-Only Baptist church (The Only True Christians — a whole DOZEN strong!) in his area which also holds Revivals every year — again, attended by the church members and ONLY by the church members.

      • Yup churches are clubs. They can also be outrageous. Did you hear what this one church didi in Ohio? Can you imagine Jesus doing this? makes me want to go to the strip club to support the strippers in their battle against the pastor!! 😯

  20. Maybe you should join the Thomas Paine Society or go skeet shootin on Sunday mornin

  21. The distinction between a church and a mission is an important and useful one. Thanks, Mike, as always for the clarity.

    Many things that make us uncomfortable when done as church seem more appropriate when done as a para-church outreach. Those tactics may be justified as a means of bringing people into church. The problem is that, if too many changes and modifications are made for the sake of outreach, there won’t be anything that is really church remaining for the seekers to come to.

    Many of the para-church organizations named in the article preserve the distinction. Campus Life/YFC certainly urges teens to go to church as well as to attend their after-school meetings. And YWAM certainly keeps overseas missionaries’ home churches involved in their care. The new types of institution have learned the wrong lessons from these organizations.

  22. I am pretty sure that most of those communities would not want to be called “churches” anyway.

    No, it isn’t news. This has been happening over, and over, and OVER again since the at least the 70s.

    I just turned thrity, and most of my twenties I spent avoiding groups like these. I do not think they are wrong, or evil, or whatever, just short-sighted. A form of “Christianity” that is “relevant” to a specific demographic, will not continue to work after people leave that demographic. Let’s say I evangelize and preach to the masses at the rock clubs. Then everybody grows up. Now what are we supposed to believe?

    Honestly, I think I have a challenge of loving groups like these. It is something I try to practice on and truly understand.

    Still though, I’d rather put my energy into re-building and sustaining churches that already exist, rather than hanging out with hipsters-4-Jesus. Most of the old folk at the various churches I’ve attended are happy to see young people.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Speaking of generational demographics, something I’ve noticed within my own denomination is that the vast majority of twenty- and thirty-somethings prefer a more traditional approach to liturgy, music, architecture, etc. The Boomers, on the other hand, are the ones that tend to be more distrustful of our traditions.

      I recently attended a Church Planting conference, and one of the workshops I attended was about planting more traditional churches. Some things the Bishop who gave that workshop said are that we need to learn how to use the traditions as a way of communicating the gospel, we need to have a very welcoming atmosphere that doesn’t “vet at the door” or foster clique-ish-ness, and we need to do what we do well. Traditional churches need to avoid the pitfalls of becoming traditionalist churches.

      • Funny, I’ve observed the same thing, Isaac. It’s the 40-55 aged crowd that wants all the glitz and rockin’ n rollin’ in church, not the 20-ish crowds. I think it’s partly the boomers inabiltiy to understand that they are not the center of the universe (I can say that as I am a boomer). I have 20-ish children, and their outlook is very different. Many of their friends are not anti-religion, but it is not something that occupies much of their thoughts at all. They see church sponsored gross-out contests, etc. as extremely pathetic and silly. I’m tired of hearing sermons about how we have to be on the look-out because the world hates us so much, when, from what I observe, for much of the world, we are simply irrelevant.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I used to get asked why I ragged on Baby Boomers all the time when I was one myself. My answer was always “Yes, I’m a Baby Boomer. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”

          By sheer accident of birth year, I get lumped in with the biggest batch of perpetual adolescents to come down the chute in the past century.

        • Headless and Suzanne,

          Thank you for apologizing for your generation. 🙂

          I’d like to thank you both for the civil rights movement, but I’m still kinda mad about the whole economic stuff. 😀

          • Well, I AM waaaaay at the end of the Boomer generation and I’m not reaping the benefits at all! Have your job cease to exist at age 50, and you have a tough row to hoe, trust me.

      • That’s very encouraging to know I am not the only one, Isaac.

        • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

          Dude, that was the biggest thing I got out of the conference, to be honest. It affirmed again and again and again that I wasn’t weird. Or at least not weird with respect to my preferences when it comes to expressions of the faith.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I am pretty sure that most of those communities would not want to be called “churches” anyway.

      When I was involved in a few during the Seventies, they usually called themselves “Fellowships”.

  23. There’s a local evangelical megachurch here, predominantly white, Republican, and upper-middle-class. A trailer park was located behind the back parking lot of this church. Residents from the park — some of them parolees and probationers, alcoholics and crack addicts — were climbing the chain-link fence and breaking into the cars in the church parking lot, You’d think it would be a great opportunity for ministry — right there in the neighborhood — they could offer prayer, counseling, job training, parental help, referrals for social assistance — and preach the gospel and offer Bible studies as well.

    Instead, they bought the trailer park and evicted all the residents.

    • Course…many fundgelcals have no patience, and an “us” vs. “them” mentality on top of that as well. Why do you think many evangelicals ignore homeless ministries, etc…? First of all many are in the suburbs. But second they will not show any mercy to any of the homeless becuase “they did this to themself…” That Vietnam veteran who hangs out in downtown Baltimore deserves no mercy for his alcoholism. Why show grace especially as he did this to himself. On and on it goes….

  24. “Why show grace especially as he did this to himself.”

    Because that is what Jesus did for us.

    • Tim

      I think the biggest weapon Christians could use is love. However, I also think its the one thing they seldom, IF ever use. Christians are afraid of showing love because they are afraid they will be condoning “something.” Who knows…if I could list beautiful and challenging experiences where people showed love and grace; instead of the Pharises I encountered chances are I would be closer and still invovled with Christinaity today. I wouldn’t have fled

      • Eagle-

        You are absolutely right. The greatest weapon Christians have is love. And we don’t use it enough because we are afraid. It certainly isn’t easy; Lord knows how many times I haven’t acted in love and shown grace.

        I am sorry for the lack of love you’ve experienced with Christians. Too often we act as the Pharisee instead of the tax collector. We somehow think that just because Our Lord was crucified we don’t have to be. We are to afraid, like the rich man, to sell our possessions and follow Jesus.

        God’s Love be with you, friend.

      • Eagle –

        You fled because you chose to. No one can make you do anything and you can’t blame you departure from the church on people. The church is made for sick sinful and broken people. Christ came for sick, sinful and broken people. So why should you be surprised when you find them in church? The key is learning to tolerate, accept and love each other despite our sinful natures and brokeness. And if one place is really intolerable, then find another one. But he honest with yourself. You left Christianity because of you, not anyone else.

        I love you and I don’t even know you. And I empathize with you because I have felt similiar feelings of disillusionment and alienation. And some of it was legitimate because of the behavior I saw displayed around me. But what I have come to see that the mass below the tip of the iceberg was a life time of emotional pain I carried that caused me to react in a hypersensitive way to any perceived hypocrisy or negativity I saw u church because I had been so hurt at such vulnerable points in my life. Once I was in a place to share about that and allow God to help me with it, I saw things much differently. I saw the church as an ER for people with severe sickness of the soul and realized that there was no better place for a person with issues to be on a Sunday morning. I also began to think about how I could ease the pain of the people I resented instead of judging them. It really helped me.

        • Anne-

          Thanks but I really beg to differ. I would suggest that the church today is for Pharises, elites and those who can be good actors. I’m not talking about 1 particular church or ministry. I’m talking about constant and continuing experiences across multiple churches, and different ministries in three states all around the United States – west coast, upper midwest, and Washington, D.C. Its part of the modern Christian culture today.

          In the process I learned that the church is crawling with Pharises and that grace is a myth. I learned that unless you can be a clone and “fit the system” its hard to fit in at all. Likewise it’s an environment that can cause you to lose your character and integrity if you stick with it long enough. I don’t think it was a freak expereince that my accountability partner of 8 years ended up living a double life. No, (and while I’m pissed about it…) he did it to survive in the culture. Many people do…I’ve noticed different situations where people “fake or act it” in order to make it appear as if they are a New Creation exhibiting fruits of the spirit. Immediate and instant transformation meaning its down hill…no more sin struggles, I have Geezus…(trying to do that passionate impersation I sometimes heard in church by a yelling pastor….) Also having been invovled in Mormonism in college I see many similarities between the two today. Looking back instead of becoming a born again I might as well have stayed in the Mormon church and been baptized..they are similar in so many ways.

  25. Yes. CM, this is a very nuanced and thoughtful essay. I guess when you attract the body of Christ via gospel-centeredness, you get the body of Christ. So you get all parts, a fullness in Christ, and not just a left arm.

    I wonder too about how a church, diverse in the fullness of Christ, manifests its corporate and each person’s brokenness. I guess a lot of love, honesty, humility, prayer, confession and whole lot of pastoral care.

    I attend a church that is starting to reveal itself (to me, at least, and who really knows if I’m seeing things correctly) as something akin to the Church of Philadelphia. It is joyful, but also terrifying at the same time. The striver in me wants to work hard for this, but really it is full dependence on Christ. Most days, I hang on by a thread.

  26. I attended Bible College in the late 50s at the front end of the 40 years that Chaplain Mike mentioned in is part of the discussion. One of my early classes was titled “The Church in the Scriptures”. One of the points that I have never forgotten was one definition of the church based on the greek word ‘ecclesia’ (spelling) which my professor translated as “the assembly of the called out ones”.

    To me, simple-minded tho it may be, it means that the church is people called out from culture/world/demographic, not to separtism but to a blended homogenous group of believers.

    Paul W

  27. Based on falling weekly attendance figures alone, the church in America is in decline. We can either harp about how bad things are from the sanctity of our half-empty sanctuaries, or we can provide an alternative that reaches people. Much of this discussion seems to center around a “somebody should do something” approach and short of condemning those that are trying to do something I don’t hear many volunteers offering to set up shop across the street.

    • Wow Ed. Look what a half century of church growth strategy has wrought. A bunch of megachurches that are now worried about declining attendance. Following corporate models leaves an institution at the mercy of the business cycle.

    • Steve Newell says

      The Lutheran Church that my family attends has been experiencing growth over the last year. There are several factors that have led to this growth: returning to the historic liturgy, strong “Law & Gospel” preaching, bible study for all levels within the Church, encouraging members to join together for meals and activities outside of the church and accepting people where they are in their faith while not forgoing the Lutheran Confessions.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        Awesome! We’re seeing some of that in our Anglican church as well 🙂

    • > The church in America is in decline. We can either harp about how bad things are from the sanctity of our half-empty sanctuaries, or we can provide an alternative that reaches people. <

      Actually the rate of attendance is pretty steady over time according to recent research on the topic.,+but+makeup+of+churchgoers+changes

      Ed, what do you meant by the words 'the sanctity of our half-empty sanctuaries.' It sounds like a jab at small churches?

      Wouldn't you agree that God is equally present with small congregations, be they rural or in countries that have just recently received the gospel? And if so, then is God not also present with small but devout congregations in American cities? And if a particular church is half-empty because some of its former members have run off to join a more trendy congregation, what shame is there to those few who stayed behind to continue worshipping as before? I don't think there is any mandate in the Bible or in any Christian document that says the pews must be filled. That is a popular principle, but it isn't Biblical. God must be glorified, but that can happen where 2 or 3 are gathered.

      You are right that not enough effort is made to reach the unbelievers: not at the overseas frontiers and not in our own communities. But butts in seats is not the measure of sufficient effort, and wackiness is not proof of sufficient effort (or even sincerity) either.

      • I would never take a jab at small congregations. In fact, I’m actually (and perhaps unfairly in some cases) biased against mega churches. I spent a month in east Asia working and supporting a diverse group of American missionaries (Southern Baptist, Mennonite, and a former Jesus Movement guy) and was amazed at what God was able to do with the meager resources they had working in small congregations and groups.

        Where I scratch my head is to see three or four churches within site of each other, none of which is showing any real vitality or impact on their communities, and yet unwilling to put their resource together to the greater good.

        I’m in no position to judge a congregations faithfulness when as you say, half the church has split off for something else, but what a shame that so much of the average churches resources are devoted to debt relief for an underutilized sanctuary or other piece of real property.

    • If we stopped trying to “reach” people and instead focused on living lives that demonstrate that Christianity really does make a difference, we would actually not need to “reach” people—they would come to us. When our “worship” shows we have no more reverence for God than atheists and when our lives don’t look any different than the surrounding world, “reaching” people becomes an ever-increasing act of desperation trying to come up with the right marketing gimmick. If we humbly, reverently and quietly showed the Christian faith really working, no marketing would ever be needed.

      • I like what you say, JeffB.

        We are commanded to go into the world and preach to gospel, so not making an effort to reach them isn’t an option. But what you say about lack of reverence and about gimmicks is right.

      • I see your point Jeff, but for me the call to make disciples, and the examples of Paul’s church planting and Peter’s public speaking would seem to indicate a more active role.

        The missionaries I’ve had the opportunity to work with were some of the most Godly, humble, and exemplary Christians I have ever known, and yet I don’t think they would be nearly as effective in making disciples if they did not take the first step of actually going where the people are.

        In the same way, there are elements within our society that don’t see the exemplary life in us either – on this I am in absolute agreement with you – Instead what they do see is our politics, judgmental attitude, denominational in-fighting, and unwillingness to make ourselves unclean by associating with them.

      • Thanks Andy and Ed. I hear you definitely about the call to make disciples. I’m not saying this is a case of one way is “right” and the other “wrong.” My only thought that I’ve been pondering for some time is that apart from the apostles themselves (you mentioned Peter and Paul), the vast majority of NT words to the average Christian has to do with their lifestyle and not their outreach. It seems to me the church has become an institution where everyone wants to be a door to door salesman, but no-one has actually stayed home and tried the product. For most Christians, I think we’d be better off using the product and showing how well it works without going out of our way to sell or advertise. If I have a wonderful looking lawn because I have some amazing plant food, I don’t have to advertise—people will stop by and ask how it is my lawn looks so great, no matter what sort of bad weather it has to endure. Many of us Christians have lawns which are just as bad as the rest of the neighborhood, but we’re out trying to convince people to use our special plant food. Get one or two people to try to do the selling and the rest of us work on the lawn—when the one or two salesmen want to show an example of how good the product is, he’ll have lots of lawns to point people to! OK, I think that’s far enough on the analogy… 🙂


  28. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

    not sure what the minimum qualification is for doing church or being church. if everything about our daily existence is truly an act of worship, then i would assume that the small subset of generationally attractive ways ‘church’ can be done is commendable, but not necessarily universal. does it have its place? certainly. is it all inclusive? nope. can it be effective. yes. will it appeal to all? nope. can it incorporate solid food for the mature? discipleship? catechism? gospel minded ministry outreach opportunities? channel all that youthful energy & exuberance into the practical aspect of loving on the least of these in their immediate geographical area?

    not being ‘churchy’ does not automatically infer being unchurch. good things can happen with peer groupings catering to that particular demographic. but as been pointed out already, all of us are on a constant journey toward maturity & that means we need to encourage & direct & offer opportunity to those starting out at point A to progress to point B. simply erecting a tabernacle to the counter-culture youth & letting them stay there while blaring music they like & handing out artful t-shirts with cool religious illustrations may actually be detrimental in the long run. and really, if the only reason is to attract some youth that have no interest in the way other ‘churches’ do church, then it may not be a reflection on those other churches at all. it may just be a reflection of that independent, do-things-my-way teenage attitude that expresses itself thru various youth inspired genre. tailor-made versions of Jesus infused gatherings intended to connect with those disenfranchised youth? yeah. do it. just don’t let that be the end-all of their church experience or expectation of deeper/greater invovlement in real gospel-minded service to others less fortunate & different than themselves…

    • addendum:

      And esthetics is in the eye of the beholder. Why tat up a body that is already wonderfully & beautifully made??? On the other hand, if tats & piercings have meaning to an individual, then I can accept their choice without inferring an inferior artful appreciation.

      Tats & piercings do not automatically meet Jesus’ approval nor do they mean condemnation either. Same with musical tastes. Or beer, wine, fine bourbon choices. Car make. Color preference. Political party. The list is as long as it is diverse. Trying to make something more divinely acceptable or appealing is just a marketing gimmick no matter what group is promoting the hype. Wasn’t there a German group that produced a racy religious calendar for sale? Are there going to be excesses or abuses perceived by those of different tastes+convictions? Yes. Is there a single standard of acceptability that can be used to measure with? Yes. Unfortunately that Standard is Jesus. And we already know how He has been used/abused by those making Him out to be their poster child representative for their particular brand of snake oil…

      Lord have mercy… 🙁

  29. Charles Fines says

    I believe that early on the church began to err on the side of condemnation rather than mercy in defining itself, and that we have paid the price ever since. I am quite willing to go with the original meaning of gathering or assembly, and with that in mind I consider this particular gathering to be church. There is nothing wrong with like-minded folks gathering together. In my view there is a lot wrong with any such group trying to force other groups or individuals to conform to their image. Jesus came to heal us all and it is painful to hear someone tell someone else that they don’t belong. There might be particular instances when intentional disruption needs quelling but too often issues of style or belief are treated as excommunicative.

  30. Hey Mike – I think you touched a nerve this morning! Thanks for great insight. Very encouraging to see how many people are reading and pondering – I sure am.

  31. Austin Hippie says

    Brother CM,

    While an interesting read, I think your premise is beside the point. (as others have observed) Our Lord and the disciples were primarily focused (at least at first) with making disciples. We too are instructed to go into the world and make disciples. Yes, I believe in church, attend a mostly white, middle class, suburban evangelical, large church. But my ministry is to an urban area with a demographic of very low church attendance and cultural diversity. These people indeed find that, what the church is doing, in every incarnation, to be irrelevant to their lives. Our outreach is “church” to them. They are astounded to find that Christ loves them unconditionally, doesn’t expect them to look and act like WASPS, but to love and serve one another. They are starting out with the simple faith and religion of babes, without much of the American church cultural baggage.

    “Our only true oneness is in Christ. We accommodate to “where people are” to reach them in the world for Christ, making them disciples. But then, when we baptize them and teach them to observe all that Christ commanded us, we call them into the practice of cross-cultural love within the new family God is creating. What the world needs to see is faith communities made up of people vastly different from one another who have laid hold of that.”

    That IS what many of these missional outreaches are doing. They are holding their doors (lit. & fig.) to the traditional churches and saying “join us. we accept you just the way you are.” It’s the traditional church member who doesn’t like faith communities that practice what Christ preaches. I think the world sees these “fringe” church groups as the “other” that is not accepted in the traditional church and is responding to that. I have very little hope for the traditional American church.

    The traditional American church doesn’t need to change. It needs to be torn down so it can rise up new.

    Of course, the only thing wrong with the church is it’s members and it’s leaders. Let’s stop trying to define, reorganize, optimize, market church and let’s just try to live as Christ instructed. Church will then be less of an issue.

    That’s how I roll.

  32. Very thoughtful piece, Mike, and a strong argument. I haven’t read every comment, and I’m coming late to the party, so perhaps this was mentioned. But the Reformers were pretty much agreed that the church should not be defined by some sociological behavior (diversity, for example) but by activities that open the community to the voice and presence of the One who created and sustains the church. Thus the emphasis on preaching and sacraments, and not the sociological characteristics of the community that the Lord creates through preaching and sacrament. As important as love is to the Christian faith, it is not considered a sign of the church precisely because it too subjective. This does not take away from the central importance of love, but it does suggest that the criteria for “church” might better be aligned with criteria that demonstrates what God does rather than what we do. Then we can start talking about a _faithful_ vs. _unfaithful_ church, and then the conversation about love and diversity, among other things, comes into play. IMHO!

    • Mark, I agree with you, and I’m sure I have been overstating my point to make it. In actuality, it’s not so much about whether a given ministry IS a church in a definitional sense, but rather is a particular community of people ACTING LIKE the NT’s vision of the church.

      I do, however, think stating it in more definitional terms might help us distinguish the difference between what may be a “mission” (because of its more narrowly focused functions) rather than a “church” as the Reformers (properly, in my view) defined it.

  33. How far would you say this goes? Does a church lose church status because they’ve defined their theology to the point where people who believe otherwise wouldn’t feel welcome? In this case, it’s not just that “worship and religious styles will reflect our cultural context.” It’s “we as a congregation believe one thing and you believe something that is incompatible.” Who’s “guilty” of maintaining the lines of separation in this situation?

    • A church family is a covenant community. They agree and covenant together about the beliefs and teachings around which the church is gathered. That is not really my point in this post. I’m talking about ministries that intentionally limit their outreach to particular demographics and I’m merely saying that they would be better called missions than churches.

  34. Chaplain Mike,

    Good, and sadly necessary post. To quote Spurgeon: “An evil is in the professed camp of the Lord, so gross in its impudence, that the most shortsighted can hardly fail to notice it. During the past few years, it has developed at an abnormal rate, even for evil. It has worked like leaven until the whole lump ferments. The devil has seldom done a cleverer thing than hinting to the church that part of their mission is to provide entertainment for the people, with a view to winning them.”